Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council (18 019 962)

Category : Benefits and tax > Local welfare payments

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 06 Sep 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complains about the Council’s decision to refuse her application for a Discretionary Housing Payment in February 2019 and the time it took to make it. The Ombudsman found no evidence of fault in the Council’s approach. We therefore cannot interfere with the Council’s decision.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complains about the Council’s decision to refuse her application for a Discretionary Housing Payment in February 2019. She says the Council took too long to make its decision even though her circumstances were clearly an emergency. Miss X says the decision has made her ill and left her owing money to a family member.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke with Miss X and read her complaints to the Council and the Ombudsman. I wrote to the Council to make enquiries and reviewed the information it sent in response.
  2. I have seen the ‘Discretionary Housing Payments Guidance Manual’, published by the Department for Work and Pensions. This reflects the regulations which make up the law on this topic. I have also read the Council’s own policy on discretionary housing payments.
  3. I shared my draft decision with Miss X and the Council and I invited them to comment on it. I carefully considered the comments I received before reaching my final decision.

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What I found

  1. Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) are a way for councils to provide extra money to help people in their area with housing costs. Anyone claiming housing benefit or university credit with the housing costs element can make a claim. As the name suggests, a DHP is discretionary, along with the amount and the time it will be paid.
  2. Miss X said she had previously received DHPs from the Council. On this occasion, she filled out an online application form. She explained she was applying for financial assistance as, although she had recently moved to more affordable rented accommodation, there was still a shortfall between her benefits and the rent. Miss X also said she had borrowed money from her father to help with her moving costs, something he had only been able to lend to her by using his pension savings.
  3. The Council says it received Miss X’s application and an officer started looking at it nine working days later. The officer decided more evidence was needed from Miss X and wrote to her asking for various explanations and documents. Miss X provided these.
  4. The Council made its decision on Miss X’s application after 15 working days in total. It refused to pay her the DHP she had asked for and wrote explaining its reasons. The main reason given was Miss X was not receiving housing benefit, or the universal credit equivalent, at her new address and so was not eligible for a DHP under rules made by the government.
  5. Miss X asked the Council to reconsider its decision. She disputed its interpretation of the regulations and also provided more information in support of her claim. Miss X also asked the Council to consider contributing towards her moving costs. The Council replied to Miss X after nine working days. It upheld its original decision and also refused her later request for help with her moving costs.

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Analysis

  1. The Ombudsman is not an appeals body and so it is not our role to substitute my view of Miss X’s claim for that taken by the Council. We will not interfere with a decision taken on its own merits, which relies on the professional judgement of an officer, if the proper process was followed. The fact Miss X strongly disagrees with the Council’s decision, or the weight given to specific pieces of evidence, is not grounds alone for us to find fault.
  2. Although councils have wide discretion in how they make DHPs, we would expect them to follow the guidance manual published by the government and any local policy.
  3. Having considered those documents, and the Council’s actions in this case, there is no evidence it has acted improperly. The basis for refusing Miss X’s claim was an interpretation of the DHP regulations. The Council provided me with proof of the advice it received from the Department of Work and Pensions in October 2017. The Council properly applied the advice, which was on this exact point, to Miss X’s case. Although the advice is nearly two years old, the regulations it is based on have not changed.
  4. I note Miss X had the opportunity to ask for reviews of the Council’s decisions and to provide further evidence in support. The reviews were carried out properly and written reasons given when the Council upheld its original decisions.
  5. I do not find the time taken by the Council to decide Miss X’s application was fault either. It took 15 working days between her putting in her application and the Council’s decision. This includes the time taken to get further evidence from Miss X, who responded quickly to the request. Miss X believes I should say the Council’s response took 30 working days, as that is how long it took for it to review its initial decision and provide a final response to her. I disagree. The Council’s decision did not change on review and so it appropriate to use the first response to determine the time it took.
  6. Miss X also says her application and circumstances were an emergency and the Council should have dealt with it quicker. However, I am satisfied the Council did not take an unreasonable amount of time. I also note, had Miss X been eligible for a DHP, it was open to the Council to backdate it to when her application was made. This means any injustice caused to her by any financial hardship in that time would have been automatically resolved.
  7. As there is no evidence of fault by the Council, I am ending my investigation of this complaint.

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Final decision

  1. There is no evidence of fault by the Council in this case.

Investigator’s final decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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